Punching up - Livre d'Or

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Punching up
Thursday, 26 November 2015 at 06:35 pm

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A locked discussion on my reading page reminded me that I've been meaning to talk about this: I basically hate the framing of "punching up versus punching down" as ways of analysing interactions. [twitter.com profile] lollardfish expressed my views rather well:
First of all - I don't like punching. Second, I think the simple verticality of power spectra is almost never clear [...] Instead, I recommend thinking about whether a given situation undermines hierarchies and stereotypes or replicates them.
In fact I think Perry's entire piece on public shaming is worth reading.

I think the original intent of analysing comedy in terms of punching direction is to make the point that satire against powerful institutions is a valid political tool, whereas bullying already vulnerable people isn't particularly funny or morally acceptable, and there's a difference. When Macdonalds or Monsanto complain that activists are being mean bullies and hurting their feelings by mocking their ethically questionable business practices, they're making a real scale error. And equally, when a comedian performs a routine based on telling a woman in the audience in detail about how he'd enjoy raping her, he doesn't get to hide behind the claim that he's engaging in edgy satire. Perhaps talking about the activists punching up and the comedian punching down is a way to illuminate why both these defences are inappropriate.

The first problem is that metaphorical punching gets applied to all kinds of things that aren't just making jokes against powerful or marginalized targets. The most extreme example I've seen is where Requires Hate / winterfox / Sriduangkaew's extended campaigns of harassment, stalking and threats of violence were, and to some extent still are in some circles, considered acceptable because she's Asian and some of her targets were white, so she was supposedly "punching up". I've seen lots of situations where someone behaves badly and hurts others, beyond just making a rude or insensitive joke, and inappropriately uses "punching up" as a defence. That seems to me as much a distortion of the punching direction concept as multi-national companies claiming that criticism is bullying, the exact false rhetoric that punching direction is supposed to help distinguish in the first place.

The second problem is as Perry points out, there's no meaningful way to line everybody up in order of how much power they have. That's part of why I have issues with the concept of privilege anyway. These things are intersectional and also situational. In general "men" might have relative privilege, if you buy that framing, compared to "women" but a particular woman who is a boss has power over a particular man who is her employee; she's not punching up if she bullies or exploits him.

It's always my bias to look at individual cases rather than systematic issues. I really do think that if punching direction matters, it's important to consider how much power the person doing the (hopefully metaphorical) punching has to actually hurt the person being punched. Not how much relative social status the punching person has in general compared to the punchee, even assuming you can assess that meaningfully. Considering only the verticality of punching in a simplistic way can itself be used as a way for the powerful to protect their interests, or for people who want to be bigoted anyway to justify their bigotry, or just generally lead to confusion and unhelpfulness.

The Catholic Church is a historically powerful religious institution that has done a lot of violence and harm in the world, but Catholics have been a discriminated minority in Britain for several centuries; jokes based on stereotypes that reinforce that prejudice might get claimed as punching up or satirizing the institution, but that analysis at best misses nuance and may often justify continued discrimination. And that's even without bringing more obvious racism into it; a lot of really nasty and often racist islamophobia gets justified on the excuse that it's punching up against the Taliban or ISIS or extremist Muslim nation states that actually have the power and the intention to hurt others physically. Indeed I would say that conflating individual Muslims with Islamist terrorists is itself racist.

The kind of thinking that leads to trying to work out whether atheists, say, publishing anti-Muslim cartoons and memes is punching up or punching down leads to the kind of bizarre contortions seen in the Lord's Prayer in cinemas discussion. Like, the Church of England is the established church, they clearly have huge amounts of power even up to the constitutional and state level. Let alone that they're a major religious institution, let alone that they represent the largest religious group in this country and the cultural religious default. At the same time, you've got all these official and Twitter-based spokespeople for the Church saying that they're being discriminated against or even persecuted because they're not allowed to show their advert in cinemas, whereas a secular company would be. And they're arguing that it doesn't matter if the Lord's Prayer offends people because that's an example of punching up, since Jesus and the early Christians were challenging and criticizing the Roman hegemony and standing up for the needy. This analysis is nonsensical, there just isn't a right answer and it doesn't help to decide what's the most ethical thing to do.

This punching up stuff feels analogous to arguments about free speech. The point of having a right of free speech is to allow individuals to criticize the state or more generally the powerless and marginalized to criticize those who are oppressing them. Yet I'm more and more often seeing hand-wringing about the free speech right to be racist, sexist and otherwise bigoted. Yes, of course it's important to protect the free speech of unpleasant people and people you don't agree with. But it seems like the only element of free speech campaigners care about is the right to be bigoted. There is no widespread or systematic threat to the freedom of speech of sexist and racist white men, there really isn't. Perhaps it's a kind of slippery slope argument: if I choose not to buy a ticket to a comedy based on rape jokes, that could, hypothetically, lead to the political persecution of men who express insufficiently feminist views. If I write to an organization I'm involved in asking them not to invite a known racist to take an honoured, ceremonial role, that's sort of a bit like censoring the racist, amirite? There are one or two extreme exceptions, but the worst consequences privileged, influential people face for being bigoted are... people write articles and post on social media pointing out that their views are in fact bigoted. The critics are expressing their freedom of speech, not attacking anyone else's.

You might think I'm being hyperbolic, but I'm thinking of recent real examples. My close friend darcydodo works at one of the American universities, #Mizzou, where there's been major race issues recently. And she's arguing, both on social media and in person, against people who regard things like daubing swastikas with faeces on Jewish centres, and posting explicit threats to shoot the African American students on campus, as just exercising free speech. Yes, a teenager has relatively less power compared to the police and criminal system, but threatening to shoot people (in a state where there is little regulation of guns) is hardly punching up, it's hardly exercising a threatened "right" to talk like a homicidal racist (even if you're not actually one in practice).

And then there's the whole Germaine Greer issue. She was invited to speak at a university, some students commented, merely mentioned, that she has a really horrible history of being actively transphobic, not just saying politically incorrect things but actually directly attacking trans women and trying to drive them out of their jobs. So Greer decided she didn't want to speak at the university after all; she wasn't even disinvited, and somehow this ended up in the national press as a story and outrage about Greer being "censored".

Meanwhile three-year-old Muslim children are being asked to take home questionnaires to demonstrate to their nursery assistants that they "support British values" and aren't "vulnerable to being drawn into extremism." Talking about punching up or down is just a way to avoid confronting the issues. Using the language of the right to offend (which really means to offend the establishment and those in power) to excuse bigotry is missing the point. Yes, people have the right to say offensive things. Yes, many people find racism and other bigotry offensive. That doesn't mean we should devote all our effort to protecting the right to be bigoted, or that any criticism of bigotry is an attack on freedom of speech.

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